Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)

I don’t think I’ve ever referred to a performance as delicious before. I haven’t on The Stop Button (if Google is to be believed), but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never said that phrase before. Delicious performance.

Dennis Price gives a delicious performance in Kind Hearts and Coronets. He narrates almost the entire film; there’s a prologue to establish the setting and ground situation a little. It’s the late nineteenth century (which director Hamer and co-screenwriter John Dighton forget numerous times), and a British royal is due for the gallows in the morning. Price is that royal. He’s spending his last night on Earth writing his memoirs, which will eventually get to his conviction, but first, he’s got to cover all his other crimes.

Price’s narration starts with his childhood, which succeeds thanks to Audrey Fildes’s performance as his mother. She’s out of the film, tragically, in a dozen minutes or so, but her character’s incredibly complex in that time. Fildes ran off with an Italian singer (also Price, but in a mustache), who died upon hearing his son’s first cries. Fildes’s noble family cut her off, even in her tragedy. Thanks to the flashback device, we get to see Fildes and Price (as her husband) in the salad days, which carries her character development through into Fildes as a widow. By the time Price is playing the part, in his late teens, presumably, Fildes has become obsessed with reclaiming her position.

Along the way, Price’s character makes some friends who are important (and not) later on.

It’s a wonderfully done summary sequence, though it does delay Kind Hearts kicking off. Part of Price’s initial success is distracting from the inevitable—Alec Guinness playing eight different parts. It’s no secret, he’s credited with all of them in the opening titles, but the film takes its time before bringing him in. And the first time is just a walk-on, walk-off so Price can get a look.

Fildes can’t wait forever for her family to take her back; eventually, after one tragedy and slight too many, Price decides he’s going to commit to pruning his family tree until he and Fildes’s line is back in contention for the title.

Once Price starts hunting Guinness in his various parts, the film takes on a slightly absurdist tone, and it works. It’s having fun with Guinness doing different parts—including one woman—at various ages, though all snooty. Price is also snooty, which ingratiates him to a couple of his targets. One’s an old bank manager; the other’s a young layabout photographer with a beautiful wife, played by Valerie Hobson. Price is taken with her, but he’s been carrying on a long-time affair with childhood friend Joan Greenwood, who threw him over—marriage-wise—for a man with a career while Price just had a job.

The second act of Kind Hearts is Greenwood realizing she’d made a big mistake not latching on to Price’s star and Price realizing he lucked out Greenwood was as shallow as him because he’s got an idea on getting Hobson away from her Guinness.

Thanks to Price’s narration—which comments on his motivations, feelings, and thoughts throughout—he’s able to remain the star of the film, which Guinness otherwise ought to be walking away with. The film never addresses, other than the Italian patriarch, why Price doesn’t look like Guinness. It’s also unclear how Fildes fits into the family and who she would’ve been abandoning when she ran off.

Another missing piece is Greenwood’s brother, who apparently doesn’t survive to adulthood in any meaningful way for Price (or Greenwood).

Greenwood’s actually where Kind Hearts goes the most wrong. Well, she and Hobson. Hamer and Dighton write the Guinness roles as caricatures, which Guinness then inhabits and exudes pure brilliance, but the female characters aren’t even caricatures. They’re entirely one note. Sure, they’re from Price’s perspective because he’s narrating, only they’re not. Hamer’s direction manages to showcase Greenwood and Hobson, but never their performances. It’s too bad.

Great music from an uncredited Ernest Irving, Douglas Slocombe photography, Anthony Mendleson costumes—Kind Hearts is a fantastic production. Hamer’s direction is solid, other than the aforementioned problems, but never particularly impressive. The production and the performances drive the film’s success.

Nice little turns from Miles Malleson and Clive Morton in the prologue.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: plenty of Guinness to nibble on, but Price’s the feast.


5 Comments

  1. Brian Schuck

    It’s been decades since I’ve seen Kind Hearts, but your review triggered memories that had me smiling. It’s also interesting that you describe Dennis Price as stealing the film from Alec Guinness, who plays eight roles. I recently reviewed a far inferior film, Horror of Frankenstein, and wouldn’t you know it, Price completely steals that film too, as a comically bourgeois graverobber. 🙂

  2. Cazbar Pintar

    Ooh I have to respectfully disagree with you about Joan Greenwood – I’ve always loved her in Kind Hearts, she’s such a massive spoilt cow! What a great picture though, what Saturday afternoons on BBC2 are made for, slumped on the sofa eating crisps and chocolate with a pot of tea. Or is that just me?

  3. Silver Screenings

    I saw this film for the first time a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with it – although it really is too bad about the female characters played by Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood. Might have been intriguing to have their situations explored a bit more fully, as you pointed out. As for Alec Guiness, he’s at his hammy best, in my opinion.

  4. mercurie80

    I loved Kind Hearts and Coronets. And I do think you are right. Even with Guinness playing several roles, it is Price who really steals the picture. I do have to agree you about Valarie Hobson’s Edith being underdeveloped, but I honestly think Joan Greenwood gives a good performance as Sibella. She adds a bit of dimension to a character who really wasn’t written with much dimension. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your review. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon!

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